Emily Thornberry's resignation shows a rattled Labour leadership. Photo: YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

It's ironic that Thornberry's now the symbol of out-of-touch Labour – and it's Labour's fault

Emily Thornberry's resignation cements divisions in the Labour party already highlighted by this by-election battle.

The shadow attorney general, who resigned tonight having tweeted a picture of a house in Strood adorned with three St George’s flags, has become over the course of an evening a symbol of out-of-touch Labour.

Emily Thornberry is a London MP, and not just any old London – Islington. An area of north London often lampooned by journalists and politicians, including Labour MPs, for being home to an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite. All it took was this fact, and that she tweeted a picture of a white van parked outside a house bearing some England flags, for Labour to become the centre of a by-election story in which the Tories should be the real losers.

However, although pictures of her smart house in the constituency are now flying around the internet, she is not a symbol of out-of-touch Labour. She was raised by her mother on a council estate outside Guildford beyond the outskirts of London. She became a human rights lawyer, and since entering parliament in 2005 has mainly worked – conscientiously by many accounts – on justice matters, being made shadow attorney general in 2011.

It is an irony that this MP is being lambasted as a classic out-of-touch Labourite, for an act she could no way have known would be blown up like this. It is a symptom of problems at the heart of her party.

There are a number of factors working against Thornberry. First, her tweet was inadvisable, though as many have pointed out, it could have been interpreted in any number of ways. Second was her confused defence, which swerved from saying people were being “prejudiced” towards Islington, to claiming she thought it was the number of flags that was remarkable, not what the flags represented. She eventually apologised on Twitter for any offence she’d caused.

But third, and the worst, was the reaction of the Labour leadership, which blew up this minor Twitter scuffle being boisterously explored by journalists awaiting the by-election result into a resignation.

Briefings were hastily poured out that Ed Miliband was furious and had told her so, and then the resignation came – another sign of how rattled the leadership is about the heart of its party. As I wrote earlier, there are widening gulfs between the national party and its activists, and those with “Blue Labour” versus post-New Labour credentials. These divisions have been highlighted by this by-election battle, and Thornberry’s resignation sets them in cement.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.